Faith & Reason: The story of Kosovo and the jar of jam

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The Independent Culture
THE LIGHT is on. The light is off. The contrast between light and dark is woven into our world. To the first hominids the sun was on, the sun was off. To the newest generation of computers, the electrical pulse is on, the electrical pulse is off.

This contrast lies at the heart of our creation myths, both religious and scientific: the universe was off, the universe was on. The contrast colours our moods and behaviour: we are happy in summer, sombre now, as we enter the dark season. It informs our moral understanding: this deed is good, this deed is bad. And such a sharp contrast means that we can easily distinguish between the two. Of course we can.

The difficulty is that moral choices come at us so fast and in such a variety of forms. This struck me at the breakfast table yesterday morning as I studied a jar of jam. It was a perfectly innocent jar of jam, a good jar, in fact: sugar-free, to help protect the children's teeth. Pity about the falling demand for sugar from the Third World, though. Were I not editing a church newspaper, I might devote a few spare hours to calculating the comparative costs of NHS dental treatment and Third World aid. What is the balance of good and harm caused by my consumer choice? I demand, I buy, I collude with a system that scrambles good and evil across the globe.

Super: a new moral dilemma to add to the countless ones confronting me even before breakfast is over. (Was the jam fairly traded? Have I been greedy and taken too much? Have I been grudging to my jam-loving children? Should I waste money on jam at all?) According to theologians down the ages, among them Augustine and Aquinas, these sins, though venial, confirm me in my fallen status.

Twentieth-century process theology, too, suggests that my soul is changed by the choices I make, just as my body is developed by the food I eat and the exercise I take, soul and body deviating their way through life like in an endless flow- diagram, neither as fit as they might be.

Another, more robust, school of theology, though, would call these scruples, not sins. Eat the bloody jam and thank God for it, you ungrateful wretch. This school recognises the danger of getting hypnotised by the plethora of moral choices hitting us, good/bad, light/dark flickering like the faulty striplight in the kitchen. For while we sit paralysed at the breakfast table, evil forces have gone to work.

One of the marchers at last Sunday's anti-Serbia demonstration in central London was a five- or six-year-old boy in military fatigues, now the national dress of most of the Balkan countries. He carried a poster with no words on it: just the photo taken in the woods near Kosovo, showing the butchered infant. Spirit of William Blake, fill us with your anger: this was a deed of darkness, an act of experience visited on a creature of innocence.

Until that photo appeared in the British press towards the end of last week, the general opinion here about the Balkan states, among those who could distinguish them from the countries round the Baltic, was that each was as bad at the other. If they were victims now, they had been aggressors before. But an 18-month-old boy cannot be an aggressor, and so we are called from the generalising and the trivial concerns of the breakfast table, and must go on the trail of the evil-doers.

When our bombs fall, although the Kosovo throat- slitter is unlikely to be walking underneath, they will nevertheless fall on people of darkness. Or, more precisely, on people of mostly darkness; or, more precisely still, mostly on people like us, caught up in a system of mostly darkness. If our military leaders can manage this, and if because of it our politicians engineer a just and humane peace afterwards, we can judge the bombings to be mostly a good thing.

It is no wonder that Western governments are hesitating, hoping that the sabre-rattling will spare them from having to make choices and act on those choices. For the theologian at the breakfast table, the flickering of moral choices creates merely a greyness, a drab battle of minor good versus minor evil which we cease to notice as it works its way into our character, one or the other eventually predominating.

On the international stage, though, a more accurate image is of a strobe light, freezing the action at points of high tension, exposing acts of wickedness, say, but seldom giving a smooth enough picture to enable action to be taken with any confidence. In Kosovo, then, the atrocities committed by Milosevic's militia have been frozen in the light, and that clarity might well last until Western military action has begun.

But what happens next is still obscure. We cannot look, at the moment, at what harm might be caused by the dangerous power struggles simmering within the ethnic Albanian community. Nor can we see the hurt caused to innocent Serbians by military action, trade sanctions or political destabilisation. But although it should make us cautious, the possibility of making a mistake should not para-lyse us. The photograph is there, and thrusts the moral choice at us: to do nothing is to collude with the murderers, and that, rather more than what we spread on our toast, will affect our souls.

Paul Handley is editor of The Church Times